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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Shakespeare and The Globe


403 years ago today The Globe theatre burned down, on 29 June 1613.



During a performance of King Henry VIII, a prop cannon set a fire, and the whole theatre burned to the ground.

Luckily, no one died, and it seems that the costumes were saved, as well as the precious playbooks.

This moment in history is fascinating, and I think it tells us a lot about who William Shakespeare was.

With the fire at The Globe, it was yet another moment in his life where he had to make a very big decision.

Would he give up London and go home, retire from the theatre and never return? 

Or would he double down, rebuild the Globe, or another playhouse perhaps, and keep writing and producing plays?

This Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare was probably painted around 1610
Shakespeare had turned 49 years old in April 1613. He had been living and working in London for probably about 25 years at this point.

About half of his life was spent London, as an actor/playwright, and he had enjoyed great success and suffered great losses.

He was the last of a dying breed of playwrights. When Shakespeare came to London around 1587, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd were arguably the two greatest playwrights. They were gone now.

Most of Shakespeare friends and rival playwrights were all gone, including Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe and John Lyly.

Shakespeare’s great friends, and artistic patrons — Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Ferdinando Stanley, Earl of Derby, and Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon — were all long dead.

The Earl of Essex
The Earl of Derby
Lord Hunsdon

The actor/comedian Will Kemp was dead. He arguably had the greatest influence on Shakespeare, and he helped to invent the unforgettable Falstaff character.

And of course, Queen Elizabeth, for whom Shakespeare had performed for on many occasions, had died in 1603. 

Queen Elizabeth, circa 1601

With all of these people gone from his life, I would imagine that London was becoming a less happy place for Shakespeare. Almost every street and every place Shakespeare frequented in London was filled with ghosts.

Shakespeare had just written, or co-written the King Henry VIII play. That play had only been performed a couple of times before The Globe caught fire.

Did Shakespeare consider that a bad omen? Did he consider the possibility that he had maybe written the last play he should ever write?

In his career in London, he had seen theatres come and go. And Shakespeare had a hand in making them come and go.

Shakespeare probably saw The Rose open in 1587, on Bankside.

But when he built The Globe on Bankside in 1599, it ruined The Rose’s business.

The Globe Theatre between The Beargarden, at top, and The Rose, at bottom

The owners of The Rose, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn abandoned it, and it was torn down. They left Bankside altogether and built a new theatre, The Fortune, on the other side of London.

After The Globe burned down, Henslowe and Alleyn started to build a new Bankside theatre, The Hope.

It seems they wanted to steal the Bankside audiences away from Shakespeare, and discourage him from rebuilding The Globe.

If Shakespeare decided to rebuild The Globe it would face stiff competition from The Hope. Even if he did rebuild The Globe, there was simply no way of knowing if it could survive against The Hope.

Shakespeare and his fellow men had great success recently, performing at the court of King James several times. The King’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth had married in February of 1613, and Shakespeare’s company performed 14 plays during the events surrounding the wedding.

Princess Elizabeth, in 1613

They were paid 153 pounds. They must have been excited at this windfall. But now, with the fire destroying their theatre, whatever profits they were enjoying could be erased by having to rebuild The Globe.

Sadly, Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard died in February, only days before Elizabeth’s wedding.

We don’t know anything about Richard Shakespeare, but it is very likely that Shakespeare wasn’t even at court for the wedding, and had to arrange and probably pay for the funeral of his brother.

In March of 1613, Shakespeare and some of his friends bought a property in Blackfriars area of London. Too little is known about this real estate deal to understand why Shakespeare purchased it, but it would seem to be something of a retirement investment.

It is rather clear that Shakespeare was preparing for his final exit from London’s stage.

The burning down of The Globe could have settled the matter, and it would have been the perfect opportunity for Shakespeare to bow out.

And not long after The Globe burned down, there was a massive fire in Stratford-upon-Avon in July. 54 houses burned down — but not Shakespeare’s.

However, the financial strain and the local efforts to rebuild the town may have pulled Shakespeare away from London, just as he was deciding whether to rebuild The Globe.

Despite the grief over his brother’s death, despite the loss of so much money and the cost of rebuilding The Globe, despite the stiff competition of The Hope, despite whatever other reasons why Shakespeare could have left London and never looked back, the decision was made to rebuild The Globe precisely where it originally stood.


I think that gives us a very good measure of Shakespeare the man.

He had faced so much adversity in his life, with the death of his son Hamnet, with the execution of his great friend the Earl of Essex — but each time he carried on.

Shakespeare was a fighter. He had fought his way into the theatres, against the very stiff competition of Marlowe, Kyd and the rest, to win his place as the greatest of all playwrights. No easy feat.

He was a tough businessman, who clearly was not afraid of The Hope. It seems that he realized the financial potential of a new Globe, in spite of the competition from Henslowe and Alleyn's new theatre.

He must have been able to set aside his fears and pessimism. I like to think of Shakespeare as idealistic, and optimistic, even after a lifetime of enormous struggles.

Also, I have to think that had The Globe not been rebuilt, it might have signaled not just the end of Shakespeare’s career — it might have helped to erase Shakespeare’s name from history.

It is possible that we would never know his name, or enjoy all the brilliance of his plays if it had not been for the decision he made in the summer of 1613 to rebuild — piece by piece, board by board — The Globe.

Cheers,



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